23/04/2013 14:31 BST | Updated 23/06/2013 06:12 BST

The Boston Bombings: Why the Media Still Hasn't Learned Its Lesson


The events in Boston in the past week have brought into sharp focus once again the role the media, both conventional and social, plays in such affairs. As demonstrated through community led sites such as Reddit, the fast dissemination of quality information was invaluable for many seeking to cut through the vitriol and endless rhetoric of news channels and get the clear, unmitigated facts. The Boston Police Department used Twitter as their mouthpiece when instructing residents in Watertown and surrounding areas to remain indoors whilst the second bomber was still at large.

However, with the ability to instantly relay news to thousands via Twitter comes the ability to start a wild rumour on a whim. Even the BBC were taken in at one stage, reporting that one of the bombers had been arrested before quickly backtracking. Reddit also showed its darker side, identifying numerous false suspects and publishing their personal details. However, while the public can be forgiven for this well meaning yet misguided sleuthing, for international media to partake in it, and even play a role in such events, is altogether less palatable.

Obviously, any speculation at this point on motives is just that - speculation - and is unhelpful as it is futile, as is suggesting the media played an active role in this particular event. But what is clear is that the news networks have learned absolutely nothing from previous cases of a similar nature - on the contrary, they're becoming increasingly oblivious to the consequences of their actions.

Much of what has already been said about the dehumanising sensationalisation of breaking news applies to Boston - the reductive portrayal of the nightmarish events as little more than a level from a first person shooter game was disconcerting in its familiarity. The 24-hour rolling news culture has created an oxymoronic vacuum where a very finite resource (newsworthy stories) is asked to fill an insatiable gap.

Even a story as dramatic and immediate as the saga of the Boston bombings wasn't able to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of the continuous news cycle, and it is when this happens that the news begins clutching at straws.

Inevitably, the coverage focuses on the alleged perpetrators; who they are, where they're from, why they're doing what they're doing. Rarely with anything more to go on than a Facebook profile page and quotes from unnamed former friends stressing how normal the person of interest was and how out of character this all is, news sources construct elaborate profiles and divulge every available detail of their lives to the transfixed masses.

In some cases, this isn't necessarily a bad thing - the publication of photos of the two Boston suspects led to their swift identification. However, now the ordeal is thankfully over and all practical use for having the men's faces thrust at us from all angles is extinguished, they will become more ubiquitous, rather than fading away.

Days after Tim Kretschmer was killed following a murderous rampage in a German school in 2009, we were still being treated to gripping footage of him playing table tennis that was as compelling as it was vital, perfectly exemplifying how the news spins these stories for all they're worth. This mawkish rubbernecking combined with the modern reality TV culture, which has created a society in which fame is a commodity valued above all others, sends those of a certain mental disposition toward a frightening, yet not altogether unfathomable conclusion - doing something like this will make me famous.

Recent statistics have indicated that in the week after a high profile shooting spree, one or two largely similar copycat attacks can be expected. There's no denying that this mimicry is at least partly influenced by the knowledge that the imitator will be awarded a place on the pantheon of celebrity and have whatever message they wish to convey, if they have one at all, beamed to millions of viewers. Invariably, those who don't have a radical directive are often found to have acted out of frustration with their inability to find a place in society.

The evidence is clear. The darkly cynical will point to the self-perpetuating nature of it all - the media has a vested interested in sensationalising the stories, and treating us to everything we could possibly care to know about a given person, as it helps them fill their schedules, and it's this morbid fixation on those soon to be brought to justice - dead or alive - that helps create future cases by inadvertently lionising them and making them into anti-heroes for those who feel similarly out of place to emulate.

Whatever the media's complicity, they can no longer plead ignorance of their role in events such as the tragedy in Boston, as both a mouthpiece for extremist ideas and a way for people to get their fifteen minutes.